As online news and comment sites find their feet…editing turns out to be…useful

I wrote here recently about how “pure-play” online news and comment sites were starting to find their feet in greater numbers commercially, and, as they do so, more confidently rewriting the handbook on how journalism gets done most effectively with the tools newly available.

Nothing unusual about this: upstarts, dismissed at first as frivolous, grab large audiences and then work more serious stuff into the mix. It’s happened throughout the history of journalism so far – with the exception of the late 20th century when advertising income was secure. And it’s happening again now. (For a longer version of this argument, see Out of Print, details on the right).

But there’s one aspect of this that gets sidelined in a lot of discussion of new things. And that’s because the importance of editors is an old thing, being rediscovered yet again.

As the digital era began and its opportunities and possibilities emerged, one thing became clear. News media were going to “de-industrialise”. The dominant position held by a small number of print publishers and terrestrial broadcasters was not going to disappear but it was going to be eroded because the power to publish was being radically redistributed. Furthermore, this argument ran, individual journalists would be empowered to become independent of corporate monoliths. Journalism would not just de-industrialise but the newsrooms would no longer be the dominant unit of organisation. The important player would be the smallest atomic particle in the system: the individual journalist.

As economic analysis this was right: its scope and significance might have been exaggerated, but it understood the redistribution of economic advantage (see here and here for summaries of US examples recently). But something was missing.

That something was editing. We’ve been taught by crowd-sourcing that mass contribution and correction systems (such as Wikipedia) can function far better than expected. We’re watching experiments like Narrative Science where robots write editorial copy. But there are forms of collective judgement not yet replicable by algorithms which still matter. For one thing they can make the difference which ensures that the output of a team of people adds up to more than the sum of the individuals’ work.This used to be known as editing.

I was reminded by listening twice recently to Luke Lewis, the UK editor of Buzzfeed. I take the example of that site because, for the time being at least, it’s the fastest expanding site of its kind, the most popular with younger users and generally mesmerising the media world. The site is relaxed, eclectic, funny, snarky and occasionally idiotic. “More buzz than feed,” sneered mainstream American reporters when it first began.

But Lewis has an old-fashioned mission on a new platform: how do we most effectively give value to those who come to the site? Headline wording is tested, and changed, according to how well they work (or don’t). Not every item has to hook a huge audience if the smaller audience is a decent share of all who might be interested. The site’s editorial personality is being morphed, by careful degrees, to include longer, more serious material – without spoiling the original mission of providing swoppable gossip fodder for people bored at work. The site is a ceaseless experiment conducted in the hope of better results which won’t blow up the lab.

This pattern can now be seen all over online news publishing. Individuals who can think and act strategically are building teams which work differently (online, technology plays a quite different and larger role) but which turn on judgements both about what people want to read and what they might need to read. You can tell a lot of about what people want to know because now it’s easier for them to tell you. But there is still a big role for instinct, reasoned judgement and risk-taking in working out what will add value. I could say: editors are back. Actually they never went away.

Update 6/2/14: One the things that editors do is to try to improve the reader’s experience by improving the writing. One tool for this is a style guide which promotes coherence and consistency without taking the style out of the writing. Not by coincidence, Buzzfeed has just released its own style guide.


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